The interview. I listened to her talking and she attracted me. I asked her for an interview. The lady, who has travelled half of the world, she led companies in Africa, she received awards. Despite all, she says the most important is to believe in your values independently of position you hold. General Manager of Heineken Slovensko – Door Plantenga.
Interview By Marek Pivacek; Check Slovak version.
Door, you come from Netherlands. What are three words to define this country for you?
Netherlands? Grey and rainy, lots of fun, straight forward, blond people and very trustworthy.
Maybe also well travelled people…
Yes, quite worldwise, lots of tourists are coming to Holland, almost everybody is speaking English. It’s such a small country and everybody wants to travel so it’s true. We have been always a travelling nation.
It is sea connected, we have been always a sailing nation trading all over the world. I’ve heard that if we would have had ambition to colonize aggressively like the Spanish, 80% of the world would speak Dutch.
Is there any funny story about Dutch people?
We are all over. I have just been on holidays in India, where we were in a city with a Dutch cementary. You’ll find Dutch people everywhere. It’s like a virus (smiling).
Let’s get back to your carreer and personal life. It’s amazing how well travelled you are. You even lived on a Caribbean Island as a small child. You’ve been Heineken GM in several African countries. How do you perceive people in those countries?
The new generation of people is curious of travelling. It was not so much the case 20 years ago. I was always curious of travelling. After my bachelor studies I took a break and travelled to Central America – Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua for nine months and that really gave me the appetite to do more travelling. In Africa I’ve seen over 25 countries and I know a little bit about the continent. I’ve also been to Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Latin America.
Also when I could work for Heineken, one of the biggest drivers, apart from beer, was that it was an international company with international footprint so I could have a chance to move out at some point. That finally happened. I have worked in Ghana, Rwanda and Botswana and now Slovakia. In three very different African countries. Of course also very different compared to here. The mentality is completely different, even between African countries.
What were your expectations? Some people might have fear. You also gave birth to two children in Africa.
Yes, in a very small hospital, so it was quite exciting. The good news is, my husband is a doctor. I knew there was somebody with medical competencies close to me. It was not a huge risk. Generally I’m not very afraid of things. I rather see the adventure, I like to change. It’s is a bit part of my DNA. In that respect I may be a bit different to others. Fortunately I married my husband who has also a quite advantureous mindset.
How do your children take it?
Actually they really like it. They are global citizens. They learned to respect others. What they don’t like is the transition period, to say goodbye to lot of friends and to make new friends in the new environment. That’s always little bit challenge. Changing from Ghana to Rwanda was another one as they had to change languages from English to French. Now they start to see the benefit.
I would like to ask you about your perception of poverty in Africa?
That’s of course a massive problem. I have been always an Expatriate for Heineken so I had always people working for me. The balancing thing was that my husband was working in hospital and was always confronted with enormous amount of poverty relatedproblems and we’ve also been in the center of the HIV drama taking place in Africa. Botswana is still the country with highest percentage of HIV incidents – 30%. We literally saw people of our age dying on a daily basis.
My husband did lot of voluntary work, for example working in an orphanage house. My kids went there to play with the children. On festive days we always went to give things to the sick children in the hospital.
A company like Heineken has also a high level of corporate social responsibility. We were involved in lot of activities. Thanks God we were not in total isolation. We still have good relations in African countries.
So you think these global companies like Heineken can address such global problems?
In Botswana, Ghana and Rwanda, I have seen some development projects where a lot of money was invested and sometimes it was not very relevant. But when you see how much employment we were creating for local people very much a policy of Heineken to get local suppliers in Africa this is much more important for the economy in a country. We had 2000 farmers working for us. With the farmers association we were funding schooling for their children, healthcare center, we setup the whole insurance scheme. I think large companies can really be influencial instead of NGO’s and companies flooding money for not sustainable projects. There’s enourmous number of people benefitting from poverty. They are making big money that doesn’t go to people who need it.
Let’s get back to Heineken Slovensko. In 2011 you were ranked as no.2 in Best Employer Hewitt survey. What was the key for your employees to rate the company so high?
This has really changed. In 2008 we were in the middle, some departments even in distractive athosphere rating. It has changed and I think because we defined very strong vision and mission for the company. People start to identify to it. Leadership team is strong, we are quite open. People like that. People can handle bad news as long as you’re honest to them. They don’t like closed doors and black boxes when they never know what is happening. Heineken in Slovakia has come quite a way. We acquired number of breweries, we had to close some down who were really inefficient. Also consumption went down so we had to do it. That is never nice for a company. And you have to merge 4 DNA’s of different cultures. I think we have succeeded and we made massive jumps. I think it was for the first time when fast moving goods company in top three. Normally it is IT, insurance or banks, because they pay better and have less monotonous work and blue collar labour force. I think we really succeeded in creating sense of belonging, family feeling which makes us very strong at the moment.
To me you seem to be like Google in beer industry where nobody is afraid of coming to management with new ideas.
There’s strong trust and confidence. We always say: good leaders inspire people to have confidence in the leader a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves. I love to see people with shining eyes, with confidence in themselves. I’m really proud of this development in our company.
You also won HR Gold for personal management. I was attracted by your article of ten rules how true leaders differentiate from managers.
Oh, you read it! (smiling). That’s my hobby and I believe it comes with age when you start to grow your experience. I started to collect habits and behaviours I really didn’t like. It’s good to know what you like, but it’s also important to know what you don’t like.
I read such advices many times, but almost none of my bosses had those qualities. What is top three for you? Is it trust?
Yes, I think it’s trust, giving credits, not taking them, showing you care for people and talking about we. We do it as a team and show that everybody has very an important contribution in the company. That’s not bla-bla, but that’s what I really feel. That’s what I’ve been able to transmit to the company. Not only Finance is responsible for fiancial results. You are interdependant to Sales, to Supply Chain. HR is the lubricant of the whole system. It starts with the team, who are the leaders. We don’t do politics. We put things on table and we see people start to copy this behaviour. Most important is not to put your ego in front of yourself. As Powell is saying – One day your position is gone and where’s your ego? Trust in yourself, your values, independent of your job.
We have been quite busy identifying leaders in our company. Because leaders are not necessarily people with highest position, but there are fantastic people that are teamleaders or salesreps and they are infectious in creating a great environment.
I know you trust rather your intuition than CVs. How can you decide for people?
That is combination of intuition and experience. In Heineken our culture and values are leading our results. But they are the product of who the people are and how they behave. If I look at somebody I know after five minutes if the person would or would not fit. I my sound a bit arrogant but I was not often wrong. Once I’ve been extremely wrong and I still regret it. Everytime you decide about people it’s very delicate.
Was it your lowlight or biggest challenge?
We’ve been through very rigorous process and the whole team was extremely happy with recruiting the person. After two months I felt this was the wrong choice. It was a high positioned person. I had to make the decision because of company’s performance that was at stake.
Let’s talk about positive things.
Yes, but from negative things you learn the most. It made me very humble in thinking I’m very intuitive in recruitement.
When looking at your four years tenure in Slovakia what was the highlight?
There were many. For example in our supply chain: Heineken has global program which we call TPM (Total Productivity Management), it comes from Japan. It means to reduce all that is loss making or is wasting resources. You need to make sure there’s continuous improvement. When I came here we were lagging behind in the program. We should already have passed through a couple of stages and we hadn’t. We started getting quite frustrated, because there’s lot of internal competition among different OpCo’s of course. In 2009 I came here and there was little bit a demoralized supply chain organization. We started change management program and in 2012 we are one of 15 world breweries (out of total 150) who got our bronz award that is the highest you can get in terms of efficiency, progress and improvement and it really made me proud.
Other thing is the whole Radler launch.
Actually this is the first coming to my mind.
It’s unbelievable. It’s like Shell finding oil in Russia. The beer market is very flat – ageing, population, demography is very flat. Many reasons why it is not moving a lot. Fortunately we were still gaining market share.
This Radler phenomenon was not invented in Slovakia. It was already in Austria, Germany, but in some point of time we all had the feeling it might be the right time for Slovakia. Indicators were not completely out of the sky, because when you’re in beverage industry you know that the LDA (Legal Drinking Age – 18+) generation has a sweeter taste profile than before because they are grown up with Coca Cola, Fanta and Sprite. What is an important attribute of beer? Most likely tradition. For IT companies it’s innovations.
We are rather in different environment when comparing to Dell, Apple. In our case tradition, heritage, quality, consistency are the drivers that really keep you alive. If you start to be inconsistent, do something new people don’t know it can be very tricky… Beer is a very traditional drink but still very contemporarily relevant. If you go to student campuses, the main drink will be still beer. Beer as a beverage is old 4000 years. But it doesn’t want to say you have to stay the same way. You have to do some innovations. And Radler was the thing.
Also advertisement is interesting. For me Champions League is associated with Amstel.
Still Amstel? We changed it at the beginning of the century to Heineken, because it is such a strong equity. UCL is watched even far more on the Asian continent where Amstel was not really available. It’s such a premium icon, football is very mainstream but Champions League is really the king of all leagues. It fitted very well to Heineken and it has done amazingly great to the brand. It’s unbelievable how many people are confronted to it. Last year we took some 10 our customers to Champions League final in Munich and it was time of their lives. We do a good job in PR to exploit this sponsorship to the maximum.
What is intended image of the Heineken trademark?
Be a man of the world. I’m born in Amsterdam and brought up by the world. If you look at new commercials, you see the worldwise man who is witty, quite funny, connects to everybody very easily and that is what Heineken stands for.
What’s your favourite beer commercial?
Here in Slovakia I really love Zlaty Bazant, because there’s lot of thinking in depth behind it. I’ve been quite involved in new commercial campaign with worldclass Slovak beer where we really try to find why we are proud of being Slovaks. There’s little bit submissive behaviour, but in 20 years of independence, there’s certain pride. We started to get into psychoanalysis almost of what Slovaks are really proud . What we found out is that Slovaks are really proud of being part of the modern world. For us that was the biggest insight. So the first commercial was about the guy who wakes up by his Japanese alarm clock, then walks in his American sneakers, has an Italian trousers and goes to his German boss and as a lunch has a Greek salad… but at the end of the day we could see the people feel the best when they are in their local Slovak circumstances. And Zlaty Bazant is close to that.
With beer you have to touch emotions. It’s a whole world around it. Mr. Heineken was always saying – I’m selling 20% beer and 80% emotions.
It is in every business.
It’s very true because what you can copy is content but what you cannot copy is the emotion. You always need to find a very unique selling point where you trigger someone’s emotions. For instance Corgon is buddies together, watching sports on television, making jokes of each other.
Now a politically incorrect question. From SABMiller portfolio in Slovakia, what would you like to own?
No problem. Pilsner Urquell would be absolutely my dream. It’s unbelievably beautiful brand. For me it’s the mother of all beer brands, because it’s where the beer started. I think they still do a miraculous job in going back to tradition and stay contemporary.
What’s your feeling of your competition in Slovakia?
It’s quite concentrated. We have big respect for competitors. I like the way we compete. We have fair competition. It might sound strange but I really like we still have local breweries. At this moment micro-breweries are coming up. I think it’s fantastic enrichment to the whole beer culture.
Do they not move towards acquisition into big players?
No, it’s not their idea. They are really proud and they want to keep their outlet, maybe to make it little bit bigger. They are making something very authentic and original.
How do you like to relax? You mentioned some friends.
Friends are extremely important. They are limited here because we are Expats so we don’t have our best friends here. But we love to socialize. Also to see things. When we came from Africa we embraced the western culture. We go quite often to Budapest, to Prague and Vienna. I think we were every week of the first year in the Opera house.
So you seem to have good work/life balance.
Sometimes it’s little bit out of balance. I have tried couple of workshops. When you burn out yourself, you’re absolutely useless so you have to make sure you stay effective which means you have to look after yourself from time to time, for example I will always use all my available holidays!
Did you have such time?
Sometimes in Ghana when we were in a phase of merging with other brewery with completely different culture. There was lot of animosity. We had to lay off people and it was awful. It really took all of me, but I also developed ability, when I’m out of work, I can let it go. When I’m at work I let go family, I’m focused on work. I can disconnect quite well.
It’s great to have a family. When you’re at home nobody is impressed with your HR Gold. You have to make spaghetti. You are forced to get back to reality which is extremely healthy.
How do your children perceive you as successful business leader?
They are not very impressed (smiling). It’s not big topic at home. In Africa it was different as they have strong hierarchy. I had to be escorted everywhere and I hated it. It was part of the respect to culture.
Are you religious person?
I’m Christian. I’m not frequenting church, but in Holland I did go to church quite often. I always like it. For me it is not Santa Claus, but an inspiration. I can get quite emotional in church, the preaching is very important. I’m also quite spiritual taking interest in lot of different religions. I religiously believe more in respect and love than sitting in the church.
What are your ambitions in professional and personal life? Favourite question – where would you like to be in 5 years…
Yes, I’m always asking that people in front of me (smiling). Very honestly it’s to maintain the quality of work and private balance. If my family is happy, I will be happy. For my husband it is important to exercise his job. As a doctor he has lot of talents to give to the community. And I don’t mind about becoming this or that. There’s also something coming my way. I never thought of coming to Rwanda or Slovakia. And I love it. You try to optimize and maximize the potential. I’m quite relaxed, not totally busy with next steps. Everyday I find there are so many nice things. Sometimes small things I really enjoy.
Maybe at some point I would like to run a wildlife camp as I’m nature lover.
You enjoy your life.
Absolutely. I’m very very happy person.
Interview By Marek Pivacek
Pictures - Heineken Slovensko
Check Slovak version.